Secret file could prove yacht killer's innocence

Secret file from Susan Neill-Fraser case revealed


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Top lawyer thought explosive dossier would clear woman's name. Tasmania Police had other ideas.

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On May 11, Victoria's leading criminal barrister, Robert Richter QC, met with Tasmania's premier, Will Hodgman and handed him a confidential dossier known as the "white paper".

The explosive file revealed that a potential teenage witness to one of Tasmania's most notorious crimes had signed a statutory declaration which casts doubt on the conviction of a woman who has spent the past seven years behind bars for her partner's murder.  

On the night of Australia Day 2009, Bob Chappell, a pillar of the local community, disappeared from the deck of the Four Winds, a yacht moored off the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay.

Chappell's partner, Sue Neill-Fraser, is serving a 23-year sentence for his murder. Police say she bludgeoned him to death, winched his body onto its deck, and disposed of it into the dark depths of the Derwent.

Meaghan Vass's DNA was found on the Four Winds, but in court she swore she had never boarded the boat.

Mr Richter's white paper suggests Chappell was killed when he disturbed Vass and other vagrants, who had boarded the Four Winds planning to steal from it. The dossier names two men with extensive criminal records who may be involved in the murder.

Sue Neill-Fraser has spent the past seven years in jail. Photo: Sue Neill-Fraser Is Innocent Facebook

Sue Neill-Fraser has spent the past seven years in jail. Photo: Sue Neill-Fraser Is Innocent Facebook

Neill-Fraser has maintained her innocence, but was convicted by a jury in 2010, a finding later upheld on appeal. 

It is the biggest legal story in Tasmania. And Richter, an intense, bearded QC regarded as one of Australia's finest and most forensic trial advocates, had travelled to Hobart to tell the Premier that police may have got it terribly wrong. 

The 25-page white paper contained an extract from a secret statutory declaration made by Vass a week earlier in which she admitted to being on the yacht the night Chappell disappeared. 

Along with other information detailed in the white paper, Richter believed Hodgman would be forced to consider an independent inquiry.

Despite years of intense media scrutiny of the case, the contents of the white paper have been a tightly held secret. Richter requested that Hodgman and the others in the room – Tasmania's acting attorney-general Matthew Groom and the solicitor-general Michael O'Farrell SC – not pass it to the Tasmanian police.

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman. Picture: Scott Gelston

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman. Picture: Scott Gelston

Hodgman and Groom declined to read the white paper but agreed that O'Farrell should review it.  Richter flew back to Melbourne and waited for a reaction. 

It came this month, although not in the manner Richter expected. 

Witnesses named in the white paper who helped compile or corroborate aspects of Vass's statement – her associate Karen Keefe, a lawyer Jeff Thompson, and another man who must remain anonymous, Witness X – have all been arrested by Tasmanian police and charged with perverting the course of justice.

The police allege they have concocted or coerced evidence to clear Neill-Fraser and support Vass's statutory declaration. 

The arrests have plunged the small state's criminal justice system into the spotlight and led to claim and counterclaim of cover-ups and witness intimidation.

A compelling case

The possibility of strong-arm tactics by the police were flagged in the white paper given to Hodgman in May. 

Witness X is recorded in the white paper as claiming he had been visited in jail by detectives and warned he may be charged if he co-operated with Neill-Fraser's legal team.

But police insist they have acted appropriately, accusing Neill-Fraser's supporters of dirty or illegal tactics. 

The case that sent Neill-Fraser to jail was circumstantial but compelling, due largely to a series of jarring lies she told police about her activities at the time of Chappell's disappearance. 

Neill-Fraser has continued to protest her innocence, dividing the Tasmanian community and the mainland media. Her supporters have paid for a billboard in Hobart promising a $40,000 reward for "true facts leading to the release of Sue Neill-Fraser".

The confidential dossier presented to Hodgman outlined evidence that could do just that.

In her signed statutory declaration, Meaghan Vass – who in 2009 was a homeless 15-year-old who hung out with criminals – answers a question that for years confounded police, prosecutors and defence lawyers; how did her DNA get on the deck of the Four Winds?

Vass testified at the original murder trial that she had never set foot on the yacht and had nothing to do with the events of January 26, 2009.

Police suggested that her DNA may have arrived via secondary transfer: on the boot of a police officer or crime scene examiner.

But in her brief statutory declaration, signed on April 27, Vass says she was on the yacht on the night in question.  

Independent inquiry

Despite their obvious credibility problems and the fact their statements have not been verified in any forensic setting, Vass, Witness X and Keefe's comments, combined with the fact of Vass's DNA on the deck of the Four Winds, were enough for Richter to urge the Premier to commission an independent inquiry. 

Such an inquiry could have the ability to compel witnesses, including Vass, to testify about what they knew about the case.

It could also examine allegations made by Witness X that he was told by detectives he would be charged with historic offences if he co-operated with Neill-Fraser's legal team.

While Richter's team also hopes the evidence in the white paper may form the foundation of Neill-Fraser's last-ditch legal appeal in the Supreme Court (the appeal has been adjourned indefinitely but could be held as early as October), an inquiry would be able to find and test the white paper evidence in a manner unconstrained by court procedure.

The Tasmanian police, though, had other ideas.    

At the start of August, Keefe was charged by Hobart detectives with perverting the course of justice over allegations she had been offered an inducement by an unnamed party to lie about Vass and compel the younger woman to testify falsely in Neill-Fraser's appeal.

Keefe is accused of agreeing to receive $3000 in cash, a $40,000 reward and a further $50,000 in the form of an "education fund" for herself and her children. 

Tasmanian detective Shane Sinnitt, who played a lead role in the original Neill-Fraser investigation, also charged Tasmanian solicitor Jeff Thompson, who is working with McLaren on the case.

Thompson's charges stem from a visit he paid to Witness X in jail as he sought to confirm Witness X's claim he had spoken with Vass and her male companion, "Sam,"  on the night of January 26, 2009.

Back in 2010, Sinnitt unsuccessfully sought to confirm Vass' whereabouts on the the night of the January 26.

Sinnitt's own files reveal he was told in 2010 by a witness that Vass had failed to return to her usual accommodation that night and may have been in the company of a man called "Sam."

(In a statement, Tasmania Police say Sinnitt was "seconded" to the team investigating the allegations against Thompson and Keefe "to utilise his detailed knowledge of the evidence gathered in the [original] murder investigation").

Tasmania Police also charged Witness X with perverting the course of justice in connection to his claims about the Neill-Fraser case.

After charging Thompson, Keefe and Witness X, Tasmanian detectives contacted television production company CJZ, demanding last week that it hand over the video recordings of Keefe, Vas and McLaren. 

Former police officer and mafia infiltrator Colin McLaren . 21st February 2011. Photo by Jason South.

Former police officer and mafia infiltrator Colin McLaren . 21st February 2011. Photo by Jason South.

Series of arrests

The police activity in the past month suggests the potential evidence Richter hoped would prompt Hodgman into action has instead been used by Tasmanian detectives to make a series of arrests. 

According to a source working with Richter, rather than being used to outline a case to clear Neill-Fraser, the contents of the white paper has instead been used to demolish it.

In a statement, Assistant Commissioner Glenn Frame says a "complex investigation" that began in February led to the charging of "three people who we allege intended to fabricate evidence in support of the Supreme Court appeal of Susan Neill-Fraser".

Frame also indicates "the material contained in the white paper" is central to the charges against Witness X, Keefe and Thompson.

But because "the matters are before the court," Frame says he can't provide further details.

Frame does, however, flag "the possibility of further charges." Both Colin McLaren and Eve Ash have told friends they anticipate being raided or arrested. 

Assistant Commissioner Frame also says that the white paper has not been provided by Sue Neill-Fraser's legal team "directly" to Tasmania Police but that a team of detectives with no connection to the original murder probe have investigated "material provided to the DPP."

That material is Vass' statutory declaration. 

Privately, police insist that the white paper is largely debunked by earlier police investigations.

The two criminals (including Sam) named as Vass' associates and possible murder suspects have previously been interviewed, with police finding no evidence to tie them to any foul play.

But the fight over the white paper may only be starting.

Sources have told Fairfax Media that on Wednesday, two other members of Neill-Fraser's legal team, respected criminal defence lawyer Paul Galbally and Tom Percy QC, may flag with the Tasmanian Supreme Court the question of whether police or senior Tasmanian officials are in contempt of court by authorising the charging of the white paper witnesses.

Neill-Fraser's appeal is set down for a mention in Hobart.

Barrister and Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barns, who practices in Melbourne and Hobart and gave some early advice to Neill-Fraser in 2009, says Tasmania's criminal justice system is itself on trial.

"The test of the robustness and integrity of any justice system, including that of Tasmania, is how it deals with hard cases such as those in which it is alleged there has been a wrongful conviction," he says. 

The story Secret file could prove yacht killer's innocence first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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